The return of Al Gore

Posted: Sep 26, 2002 12:00 AM

If anyone had any doubts about whether Al Gore was going to try to run for president again in 2004, his speech in San Francisco on September 23rd should have put those doubts to rest. The former vice president was in top form, doing what he does best -- making an absurd argument sound plausible.

Gore lashed out at President Bush for wanting to attack Saddam Hussein before finishing off Osama bin Laden's international terrorist network. "Great nations persevere and then prevail," Gore said. "They do not jump from one unfinished task to another."

This is a variation on a political strategy already developed by Congressional Democrats, who felt themselves caught between Iraq and a hard place. They don't want to seem to be opposed to President Bush's campaign against Saddam Hussein but they also don't want to be for it.

In order to have it both ways, Congressional Democrats developed the "wait until" argument, which goes like this: Yes, we support the president in taking action against Iraq, but he should wait until the United Nations votes to supports us, wait until the war against the terrorists is over, wait until the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been settled, wait until .

In advancing a very similar argument, Al Gore -- like Bill Clinton before him -- knows how to rely on the fact that many people will not stop to think through what is being said in ringing rhetoric. If they like the sound of it, that is all that matters.

When an enemy is trying to build nuclear weapons, do you act before he succeeds or do you just put him on the waiting list of things to do after you finish whatever else you are engaged in? Are we a country that can't walk and chew gum at the same time, so that we have to wait until we finish chewing our gum before we start walking?

Sometimes there are specific reasons for waiting until one thing has been done before doing another. But Al Gore provides no such reasons. He obviously does not feel any need to -- which is to say, he doesn't think our intelligence is high enough to require it.

Whatever the Gore position lacks in logic, it makes up in political shrewdness. He has now staked out a position that clearly distinguishes him from other prominent Democrats who may also be seeking their party's nomination for president in 2004. Moreover, it is a position that Congressional Democrats cannot so easily take.

Democratic members of Congress have to get past this year's election, and it will be tough for them to do so if they come out swinging against a popular president on an issue in which the public supports him -- namely, a pre-emptive strike against Saddam Hussein.

Since Al Gore is not running for office this year, he is not boxed in like the other Democrats with whom he will be contesting for the 2004 nomination. Nor is he risking much.

If by 2004 President Bush has acted against Iraq, his actions will either have been a success or not by that time. If the president is successful, it will be hard for any Democrat to unseat him, but if a war against Iraq produces setbacks and disappointments that the public resents, then that is when the Democratic nomination will really be worth something.

Gore's freedom from the constraints of this year's election allows him to play to the basic attitudes of many of the Democrats' hard-core supporters, who will have a big say in who gets the party's 2004 presidential nomination. These Democrats have long been opposed to any military action, or even spending money on military preparedness. Most Democrats in Congress voted against the Gulf War in 1991, with some predicting a quagmire and huge American casualties.

Gore is able to play to the hard-core Democrats by warning against unilateral action. What this means in practice is limiting what we do to what the lowest common denominator among other countries will support -- and delaying until such support can be mustered, regardless of how much closer to nuclear weapons Saddam Hussein gets in the meantime.

None of this is rocket science, but it does require you to stop and think -- and that is what demagogues are betting that you will not do.